Does multifunctionality matter to US farmers? Farmer motivations and conceptions of multifunctionality in dairy systems

Rachel F. Brummel, Kristen C. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The concept of multifunctionality describes and promotes the multiple non-production benefits that emerge from agricultural systems. The notion of multifunctional agriculture was conceived in a European context and largely has been used in European policy arenas to promote and protect the non-production goods emerging from European agriculture. Thus scholars and policy-makers disagree about the relevance of multifunctionality for United States agricultural policy and US farmers. In this study, we explore lived expressions of multifunctional agriculture at the farm-level to examine the salience of the multifunctionality concept in the US. In particular, we investigate rotational grazing and confinement dairy farms in the eastern United States as case studies of multifunctional and productivist agriculture. We also analyze farmer motivations for transitioning from confinement dairy to rotational grazing systems. Through interviews with a range of dairy producers in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York, we found that farmers were motivated by multiple factors - including improved cow health and profitability - to transition to rotational grazing systems to achieve greater farm-level multifunctionality. Additionally, rotational grazing farmers attributed a broader range of production and non-production benefits to their farm practice than confinement dairy farmers. Further, rotational grazing dairy farmers described a system-level notion of multifunctionality based on the interdependence of multiple benefits across scales - from the farm to the national level - emerging from grazing operations. We find that the concept of multifunctionality could be expanded in the US to address the interdependence of benefits emerging from farming practices, as well as private benefits to farmers. We contend that understanding agricultural benefits as experienced by the farmer is an important contribution to enriching the multifunctionality concept in the US context, informing agri-environmental policy and programs, and ultimately expanding multifunctional agricultural practice in the US.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)451-462
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - Dec 5 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank faculty members Nick Jordan, Steve Manson, and Bruce Vondracek for their broad contribution as research team colleagues. We also are grateful to Sondra Campbell for assisting with interviews, as well as Katie Clower, Sarah Graves, and Andrew Nessel for on-farm methodological assistance. A special thanks to all the farmers we interviewed for sharing their farm and their perspectives. We also thank Maria Dahmus Kim, Adam Kokotovich, and Teresa Woods for their comments on earlier drafts of this article and Alison Slaats for map-making and GIS work. Additionally, we appreciate the comments of anonymous reviewers, which significantly strengthened this paper. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation Coupled Human-Natural System/Biocomplexity grant (BCS-BE: CNH-0709613 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Elsevier Ltd.


  • Agricultural transition
  • Farmer motivations
  • Multifunctional agriculture
  • Multifunctionality
  • Rotational grazing
  • US dairy


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